Simrandeep Singh Parmar, SVP - Shiksha Study Abroad in conversation with Srikant Gopal, Executive Director - TOEFL Program at ETS; Varun Raina, Associate Director at IDP Education (IELTS) and Yatender Sharma, Head PTE Marketing of India & Hub Countries - Pearson discussed the future of studying abroad and how standard international tests such as IELTS, TOEFL, GRE and PTE Academic are revolutionizing to accommodate the new normal amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The excerpts of the interview are as follows.
Q. When can study abroad aspirants expect exam test centres to reopen? How can students be updated with the latest information about the status of test centres?
ETS: Test Centres are currently operational in 16 cities including Delhi, Kolkata and Hyderabad. Students wanting to appear for TOEFL/GRE can expect 80% of ETS test centres to be functional by the end of June. A vast majority if not all test centres would be fully functional through the months of July and August. The new normality can be expected to be restored in phases starting mid-June till the end of August. Students wanting the latest information about the status of test centres can visit the ETS global registration system for the same. Once they are on the exam registration page, they would find information about the functional test centres and the available date and time slots for booking the exam.
IDP IELTS: Computer Delivered testing centres are currently operational in seven cities. IDP is in the process of staggered re-opening of IELTS Test Centers after receiving required government approvals and carrying out a thorough inspection of every centre. We are in talks with several hotels for resuming Paper delivered IELTS test, which would require hotel accommodation and students would be informed once the same is available. Students wanting to know about the latest status of IDP IELTS test centres can visit the dashboard on the official IELTS website for information on all functioning computer-delivered test centres. IDP also has a dedicated call centre and customer care team for students to get in touch with, via call or email for more information on IELTS Test Centres.
PTE Academic: We are currently live across 16 cities operating 21 test centres in India. Out of the 37 test centres we are currently operational in 29 test centres across India and Hub countries. Candidates can visit in.pearson.com/blogs which is updated every morning for the latest status on PTE Test Centres in your region. PTE Academic (PTE-A) also has a dedicated call centre for student queries regarding the functioning of test centres and information at large about the PTE-A exam.
Simran: We can infer that the majority of test centres are re-opening apart from the ones located in areas demarcated as Red Zones or cities that are severely affected by the coronavirus Covid-19. There is ample information available on the official websites of exams for candidates wanting to book a test for studying abroad.
You can also watch the interaction held with the panellists streamed live on June 5, 2020, titled: Learn the new safety precautions for IELTS, PTE, GRE & TOEFL exams, here:
Q. What are the safety precautions being adopted by test centres? How are test centres ensuring adequate social distancing is maintained?
ETS: The health and safety of our test takers and staff are paramount. ETS has provided clear guidelines to ensure all safety precautions are upheld without compromising the security aspect of the test. Examples include wearing facial masks that have been made mandatory at all times as well as during the entire duration of the test. Human interaction within the ETS Test Centre has been brought down to a minimum and the use of technology strengthened. The six feet distance is maintained at all times in the test centres premises. Students should note that using the facial mask is not mandatory during the Speaking Section of the test.
IDP IELTS: Needless to say the safety of staff and test-takers are paramount at IDP. Facial masks are mandatory at all times. Every candidate would also be screened for body temperature before they are allowed entry into the test centre premises. Hand sanitisers have been installed at all stages and candidates are advised to use them frequently. The six feet distance would be mandatorily observed at all times in the IELTS Test Centres between students, staff, and invigilators. The USP of our IELTS Test Centres is that they have been inspected by government authorities before they have been reopened for the benefit of our test takers, as we leave no stone unturned for the safety and security of everyone on our testing premises. Similar measures would be adopted for candidates opting for IELTS Paper Based test.
Q. What measures should be adopted by students as they approach their test centres for their registered exam?
PTE Academic: Extra care will be taken to ensure there are no safety lapses on any end. The government requires the mandatory wearing of facial masks at all times. Hence, candidates would be required to wear facial masks at all times, liberally installed hand sanitisers should be used regularly. Candidates would not be allowed entry to the test centre without facial masks. Testing machines would also be sanitized before and after every use leaving no room for any potential risk to any candidate. The six feet mandatory distances would be maintained at all times within the building. Candidates can also request disposable hand gloves at the centre which they would have to dispose of before leaving the premises. The testing capacity has also been significantly reduced to successfully implement safety precautions.
IDP IELTS: Candidates, invigilators, and staff would all be required to wear mandatory facial masks at all times. Under no circumstances would the safety of any staff or student be compromised. The testing equipment would be effectively sanitized before and after every use to avoid any spread of infection. Students are permitted to get their own pen/pencil to the testing centre but blank sheets would be provided to the student at the facility. Adequate mineral water would be supplied to every test centre, students who would want to bring their own water from home for safety reasons must do so in a transparent bottle sans any logo or written text on the body of the bottle.
Q. Would students who have previously booked their test dates but were unable to appear for their exam be given preference over new registrations?
ETS: Students who have registered for their exams at an earlier date but were unable to appear for the same because of the ongoing pandemic would be given priority. As we are filling seats of test centres that are opening rapidly, we can expect backlogs of students to be cleared swiftly not only because of the vast majority of test centres that are now functional but also with the introduction of the Special Home Edition format of the test. Introduced in April 2020 students anywhere across the length and breadth of the country can use their computer and take the test in the secure environment of their home. Under secure conditions, the Special Home Edition test has features such as live human proctor monitoring and provides students with similar testing experience and high-security operations at par with appearing for TOEFL at a test centre.
IDP IELTS: There is a fraction of a backlog of students that are being taken care of as we speak. We have also offered candidates who have opted for the paper-based IELTS test to shift to the computer-based test at no additional cost. Once the Paper-Based test centres become functional, candidates will be informed in advance so that they are able to prepare and appear for the test.
PTE Academic: We have been able to clear about 50% of backlogs. We have enough booking slots available for students in our now functional 29 test centres and will be in a position to clear the remaining accumulations in another seven days. There is also enough slots available for new registrations.
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Q. Universities in the USA have opted to cancel GRE for admissions in 2020. How much of this is true?
ETS: Universities are faced with a challenging situation. Whether it is re-opening campuses, extending online options or offering an entire semester online. Universities are adopting different measures to meet university enrolment and recruitment goals. Some of them are being a little more flexible on testing requirements, especially when it comes to entrance tests such as GRE. What I would advise candidates is to check with the specific university about their requirements. But what we have observed in the ETS, where universities are deferring or postponing the requirements the vast majority of requirements haven’t changed, people are still required to appear for GRE especially to gain admission to quality institutions.
Q. What advice would you have for students who are unable to appear for their test due to state travel restrictions or any other hurdle given the current situation?
ETS: Rescheduling fees have been discontinued and this is in place till normalcy is restored. Candidates also have the option to take the test either at the test centre or from the safety of their home and students can easily shuffle between the two options according to their accessibility. So for example, if a student has registered for the test at a test centre and he wants to change the date of appearing for the exam at the test centre for whatever reasons, he will not be charged any rescheduling fee. Similarly, if a student has opted to appear for the test at the test centre and later wants to appear for the test from his home – no charge. The process is also easy, students are only required to contact customer care and they would help you make the changes swiftly. This way ETS has provided maximum flexibility for students to pick the testing format from the dates and venue that is convenient to them.
Our Special Home Edition Tests which were earlier launched till the end of June has now been extended and will be live till the end of September. Currently, the Special Home Edition test happens four days a week, i.e. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and for each day it runs 24 hours and every hour a new test launches. So you see there is a lot of capacity and applicants will not have a problem booking their test. Starting July 1, 2020, we are shifting the TOEFL Special Home Edition test to Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and GRE Special Home Edition Test will be conducted on all seven days from July 1, 2020, till the end of September.
PTE Academic: We have our test centres located in all major cities and with the situation changing rapidly, we can expect most border restrictions if not all to be lifted soon. However, if there is mandatory train travel involved then the student is advised to follow government guidelines because the safety of the student is paramount. With the situation changing rapidly and most of our test centres resuming operations my advice to students would be to opt for a test centre that is closest to them.
Q. Are there plans for increasing the number of test slots every month for IELTS? What is the mandatory time period between two IELTS tests?
IDP IELTS: The test frequency of the IELTS Paper-based test would be increased in the coming days and months. The IELTS Computer-delivered test happens every day and multiple times a day. Candidates can appear for two tests in a day. Candidates are not required to maintain a minimum gap between two tests. Pick and choose the date and slot as per your requirement.
Q. During the current lockdown are TOEFL study material accessible to students over the internet?
ETS: The official website is functioning as normal. Study material online is available as usual for the benefit of students. There is a lot more interest that has been generated around the available material online since students have more downtime and can prepare a lot more during their free time.
Q. Will the recently launched at-home tests continue to be available to students with the partial reopening of test centres? Will the test results be at par with offline tests and what kind of acceptability are you seeing with universities with scores of an at-home test Vis-a-Vis test centre scores?
ETS: Both the GRE and TOEFL tests at the test centre or Special Home Based Edition are exactly the same. Whether you talk about the testing experience, content format, onscreen experience, score screen and scoring are all identical in nature. The scores can be used for high stake admission purposes for both TOEFL and GRE. The acceptance is universal. The Special Home Edition tests are currently available till the end of September.
Accepted in over 11,000 institutions in over 150 countries worldwide, ETS has communicated with most of them and we have not heard from one university that they are not going to accept the validity of at-home tests. Hence a lot of universities may not specifically point out about accepting at home test scores only because they are at par with test centre scores. There is no difference.
IDP IELTS: The IELTS Indicator test is an interim solution during the COVID-19 situation happening globally. Once all test centres have resumed operations, the IELTS Indicator will go off. Many universities are recognizing IELTS Indicator and results are being treated at par with IELTS test centre scores.
Q. Should students be encouraged to appear for the home-based tests given the infrastructure hurdles such as lagging broadband services and non-uniform power supply in most areas?
ETS: We want to provide all the options to students. Children should do what they are most comfortable with. If they are in a city with an operational test centre with an easy commute and they want to appear for the exam from the test centre, they should opt for the same. There are also candidates who would prefer to appear for the test from home. So it really depends on the preference of the candidate at this point. Before we ask students to pay the fee and register for the test they would be required to undertake equipment checks because we don’t want students to pay money and commit to doing this unless their computer is certified as ready. So we have two separate checks that we ask them to go through.
There could be power disruptions, internet issues at home when they are doing the test, the important thing is the student should not be penalized. So if there is a bandwidth issue in a three-hour-long test then no time is lost as the timer is picked up once the Internet connection is brought back to speed. If they are unable to complete the test there is a free reschedule option available and they are not penalized for the poor performance. We have a growing number of students who are opting for the Special Home Edition of the test. Students should not be concerned with technology or power glitches, but really decide for themselves which they prefer home-based or test centre.
IDP IELTS: Students before booking their home-based test would be required to carry out a system requirement check. The test does not require any high-end system. Once satisfied with the system compatibility, candidates can go ahead with booking their test. When faced with electricity or bandwidth snags the answers of the candidates would be recorded and on resuming services, candidates can start from where they last left off. Candidates do not require any external camera but the laptop camera works fine, more specifications are provided on the official website. The tests are monitored by a human proctor on the other side. A unique feature of the IELTS Speaking Section of the test is the mandatory human interaction in both the Paper-based test and the computer-based test. Similarly, for the IELTS Indicator test, we have launched VCS – Virtual Calling Speaking, where the candidate would be required to interact with a live person on the other end of the screen. The examiner would then mark the candidate on his performance.
PTE Academic: We are in the process of reopening test centres rapidly. Candidates are advised to visit the test centres nearest to them to avoid any technical glitches such as Internet and electricity outages during the length of the exam when appearing at home. Candidates would also be able to score better in the right environment provided at the test centre.
Q. Will there be any alteration in the duration of the test due to the safety precautions put in place? Would students be required to report early to the test centres to adhere to safety norms?
ETS: There is no change in the duration of the test. However, candidates should be reminded that in August ETS had shortened the duration of the test to three hours. The same format still continues in both the home-based and test centre formats of the exam. The format of the exam remains the same which includes one planned break of 10 minutes after two sections. However, in the test centre version, candidates can take unscheduled breaks but this would eat into their test time. In the home-based version, there is only one scheduled break and there is no provision for unscheduled breaks. As in the home-based version, there would be live human proctoring happening for every section to ensure 100% security. ETS is committed to providing a fair experience to all students.
IDP IELTS: Candidates don’t have to report early to the test centre to adhere to the safety guidelines. They can report to the test centre half an hour prior to complete all necessary checks. Rules for the Paper-based test would be in place once the same is re-launched.
PTE Academic: There is no change in the duration of the exam. We are trying to minimize human contact and increase machine interaction at all our test centres. The six feet distance will be maintained at all times. We have also reduced the testing capacity by half at all our test centres. Only when the student raises his hand would an invigilator assist him. Since the testing capacity has been reduced by half, students can report half an hour prior to the test centre to complete all necessary procedures.
Q. How is Duolingo different from IELTS, TOEFL and PTE?
ETS: Students should understand that TOEFL is not just a test of English knowledge, it is the test of English communication that is done in an academic setting and its two way. Whether you are in a classroom in Australia, UK or Canada, you are communicating to instructors and they are communicating to you. You are communicating with your fellow students and vice versa. It is actually communicating in an academic context using academic English. That’s what TOEFL does, the test design is rigorous and stimulates tasks that you do in a university classroom.
Duolingo is a test of simple English knowledge. It is not a test of English proficiency and certainly not a test of English communication so in that sense, it is inadequate as a test for the university academic context and that probably is the most important difference that I would like to point out. Even though the test is taken at home there is no human proctoring, you sit in front of the computer and you take the test. So for us, that’s a big security violation and breach and that might affect the confidence and scores that universities receive.
Simran: To summarize, universities are not as open to accepting Duolingo scores as they are open to accepting standardized tests such as IELTS, PTE and TOEFL, so make your decision with both situations in mind.
Q. Will the release of test scores now take more time than usual or they will be published at the same time?
ETS: Candidates can expect their TOEFL iBT test centre results six days from the day of appearing for the exam. We have dropped the turnaround test score duration from 10 days last year to six days this year. The score for the TOEFL iBT home version takes a little bit longer, it is between 6 to 10 days, but students can be assured not more than 10 days.
IDP IELTS: Nothing has changed. Candidates can expect the test results for both computer-based IELTS and IELTS Indicator tests in five to seven days.
PTE Academic: Typically PTE results are declared in five days. Last year we brought this down to 2 days where a majority of results were declared in a record time of 1.2 days. PTE is working to further reduce the waiting time for scores. Candidates can expect their results in two days for the current year.
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Q. The current coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has brought the study abroad industry to a halt. Witnessing the current trends, what is the future of study abroad?
ETS: I think students should think about this as a temporary situation. Not just in India but the whole world is experiencing something that has not been experienced before, but this is only temporary, it will pass in the next few weeks, a few months but it will pass. So the most important advice I would give to students is to stick with their long term plans. Don’t let the events of two or three months change what you want to do for the next 30 years. Have faith and confidence. Whatever destination people had chosen to study abroad, those destinations are still attractive whether it is the US or Australia. Things happening in the country are also temporary.
Like the US is hit by multiple problems but on the ground, nothing has changed, life goes on normally. There is a presence of a very strong Indian American community here in the United States. India is the second-largest source of students to the US. Indian students are highly respected and universities are ever so welcoming. I have been in the US myself for 20 years, came as an international student to study MBA and have not seen one Indian student who has come here and not succeeded, whatever their goals are. I would advise students to look past recent events and news of the day and look at the US or any other country and continue with their dreams and plans.
Simran: To summarize: Don’t change your long term plan because of the short term situation we are caught up in. This situation will gradually improve and hopefully, go away sooner than later.
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